To write on consumerism today is to write in the shadow of Theodore Adorno. His pivotal 1947 essay on the “culture industry” in particular, and its central insight into how the many faces of consumer choice conceal a regime of control, forms the basis for much recent criticism. Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok; Netflix, Hulu, or Disney+; Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s: to the critics in Adorno’s wake, the decisions endemic to contemporary American life demonstrate what Adorno called “mass deception,” a state meant to obscure real alternatives to cultural norms. And so, for recent critics, it is the writer’s purpose to reveal the authoritarianism that masquerades as ordinary experience.
But unlike Adorno, who fashioned himself the observer, authorized to critique mass culture because he had avoided its influence, many critics of twenty-first-century consumerism find their authority in a different guise: as self-admitting participants in capitalism. I am capable of criticism, they suggest, because I, too, consume. I, too, am complicit. Mea culpa.
Recent history provides no shortage of reasons to self-implicate. To acknowledge one’s own complicity is the responsible thing for a writer to do, especially in a political era marked by uninhibited hypocrisy. So when writing, for example, on the environmental costs of air travel, one would be wise to consider the “2.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide” one’s family produced on a recent vacation, as did reporter Andy Newman in a 2019 New York Times article. Or when commenting on industrial meat production, an accountable writer would admit their “selfish interest” in the moral permissibility of eating animals, as did David Foster Wallace in his 2004 essay “Consider the Lobster.” A writer who discloses their involvement in the subject of their critique is a writer readers can trust: not just transparent, but also self-critical, astute, and thus, presumably, ethical.
But in surveying recent writing, one begins to wonder whether the mea culpa makes transparent more than a writer’s capacity for self-awareness. Is it that case that contemporary criticism is a field saturated with responsibly introspective writers, or could it be that the field itself imposes such a responsibility—as if to say anything about consumer capitalism, one must self-reflect? At a certain point, does the admission of individual excess demonstrate not just a responsibility for one’s actions, but to a larger genre? And if so, is it possible for a writer to compose a mea culpa that does not, somehow, ring hollow?
There is perhaps no contemporary essayist more familiar with this dilemma than Jia Tolentino, whose debut collection, Trick Mirror, takes the intersection of anti-capitalist and self-referential writing as its foundation. Across her chapters, Tolentino describes an American experience where every person, identity, or action represents a brand in need of development and quantification. Among Tolentino’s sharpest analyses is her reading of popular feminism’s embrace of a late-capitalist insistence on productivity. For Tolentino, the triad of the ballet-inspired fitness studio Pure Barre, fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen, and preponderance of “athleisure” clothing lines—all marketed to and patronized predominately by women—together exemplify the “mechanisms that help women adapt to [the] arbitrary, prolonged agony” of the American workplace. And the success of such brands can be attributed, Tolentino claims, to pop-feminism’s consumer-friendly imperative that women can—nay, ought—to “optimize” themselves while also being “expected to look unreasonably good.”
Why should readers believe her analysis? Because it is her experience, of course:
I go to Sweetgreen on days when I need to eat vegetables very quickly because I’ve been working till one A.M. all week and don’t have time to make dinner because I have to work till one A.M. again, and like a chump, I try to make eye contact across the sneeze guard, as if this alleviated anything about the skyrocketing productivity requirements that have forced these two lines of people to scarf and create kale Caesars all day, and then I ‘grab’ my salad and eat it in under ten minutes while looking at email and on the train home remind myself that next time, for points purposes, I should probably buy the salad through the salad’s designated app.
Trick Mirror’s reliance on such personal experiences, which structure each of the collection’s nine essays, is a feature, not a bug. Positioning herself as a very smart critic of consumerism who nonetheless consumes many of the same, inherently degrading products she evaluates, Tolentino distances herself from predecessors like Adorno—or Joan Didion, to whom she is often compared—whose writings often made no secret of the authors’ contempt for their subjects. But in doing so, she does not render “I” the subject of her writing. Her actual subjects, Tolentino explains, are “the prisms through which I have come to know myself” and whose “refraction[s]” she hopes to “undo.” So in targeting interests like the internet and identity, the “difficult woman” as feminist figure, and the wedding industry, Tolentino illustrates capitalism’s incessant commodification of the self. And in subordinating the account of her own familiarity with the mercilessness of corporate salad-making to a broader analysis of capitalist efficiency, Tolentino accomplishes a balancing act difficult for any writer: simultaneously demonstrating her expertise, reworking anecdote as evidence, and concretizing the soul-sucking dynamics of our shared reality.
But for each time Tolentino puts the mea culpa to work in Trick Mirror, there is a parallel instance that more closely resembles a generic obligation. In those instances, Tolentino’s mea culpa takes on a feeling of compulsion, as if her analysis would be incomplete only until she has referenced personal experience. Take, for example, Tolentino’s turn in her chapter on the “scam” as a master theme for Millennial experience to her own involvement in pop-feminism:
[M]y own career has depended to some significant extent on feminism being monetizable. As a result, I live very close to this scam category, perhaps even inside it—attempting to stay on the ethical side, if there is one, of a blurry line between ‘woman who takes feminism seriously’ and ‘woman selling her feminist personal brand.’ I’ve avoided the merchandise, the cutesy illustrated books about ‘badass’ historical women, the coworking spaces and corporate panels and empowerment conferences, but I am a part of that world—and I benefit from it—even if I criticize its emptiness; I am complicit no matter what I do.
The placement of this paragraph as the last in a section on “Girlbosses” is telling. In the preceding pages, Tolentino had exhibited perhaps her greatest virtue as a writer: an ability to make coherent the unwieldy mutations of recent capitalism through comparative readings of its particulars (in this case, the Girlboss-branded ventures of Sophia Amoruso, the richly funded, all-female coworking space The Wing, and Sheryl Sandberg’s notorious manifesto of corporate female empowerment Lean In). Notably absent from those readings is Tolentino herself—until the final paragraph. But in its late appearance, the mea culpa borders on redundancy. Tolentino’s analysis has already established her critical savvy, and the world of “self-congratulatory empowerment feminism” has already made vivid her subject matter. With such achievements, the closing mea culpa reads as if attached by a thumbtack.
The difficulty of composing a mea culpa that does not feel compulsory is hardly Tolentino’s alone; it is endemic to the generation of writers who cut their expository teeth in the transition from Web 1.0 to 2.0, and whose merit is often measured as much in retweets and followers as in degrees and bylines (a subject Tolentino herself examines in the chapter “The I in the Internet”). For these writers—reared on blogging, personal essays, and social media that promise unfiltered access to the inner-life—the most appealing function of the mea culpa may be its dual capacities to make subject matter from personal experiences and to present those experiences as representative of broader phenomena (e.g., consumer capitalism). As Tolentino shows, this approach may lead to more and less productive criticism, some writings enhanced by self-implication, others diminished.
But in charting the mea culpa in recent essay writing, anecdote is not its lone province. There are also writers for whom the mea culpa is not only a vehicle for criticism, but serves to forge, and share with readers, entirely new critical tools.
One such writer is the essayist Eula Biss, who in her 2009 essay “Letter to Mexico” offers a model for how acknowledgments of complicity might demonstrate the development of hard-gained insights. Biss begins her essay by considering the North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA) promise “to make Mexico more like the United States.” NAFTA fulfills this promise, she argues, in one way above all others: by amplifying inequality. The tone of this section is blunt and confident: “ten-year reports on NAFTA reveal that Mexico, like the United States, now has a small number of billionaires. And real wages for everyone else have fallen,” writes Biss, confronting the reader with an economic reality as material as the Colorado River she describes in the same paragraph. But no sooner than she establishes her knowledge of international trade does Biss reveal it to be the product of a long, often-embarrassing process of self-reckoning.
With a break in section, Biss shifts the essay from informational to personal; the “I” that had taken a backseat to NAFTA reappears as Biss recounts her enrollment in a Spanish-language immersion course just across the Southern California border. While spending her weekdays attending classes and staying in the home of a Mexican family in Ensenada, Biss finds herself the object of a pervasive hatred of Americans. The nearby La Salina, a beachside expatriate-haven where she spends her weekends, provides Biss some reprieve, but only while instilling in her a hatred of her own countrymen. Amid the hourly echoes of “Hotel California,” Biss finds the expats she had previously imagined as romantic outlaws no more than the worst of American stereotypes exported, “fat and ravaged by sun and alcohol and cigarettes,” and she “hate[s] them for being so loud and so drunk.”
But as her time in Ensenada extends, and her attentiveness to the lived realities of NAFTA expands, Biss comes to terms with the shallowness of her disdain. “[T]he hatred I felt for the Americans in the cantina at La Salina was the hatred I felt for myself,” Biss admits, “a punishment for being so ignorant of the world outside my country.” A realization of the span of her own ignorance thus goes hand in hand for Biss with the increased visibility of the economic framework that assures her American privilege: “I did not know then that NAFTA had in effect eroded many of the rights and protections provided by the Mexican constitution,” she writes, “I did not know that breaking strikes had become a common practice under NAFTA, even after the federal court ruled in 1999 that strikes were legal. I did not know, really, anything.” And so, what begins as “a nameless, crushing remorse” makes possible Biss’s recognition “at whose price I had enjoyed a comfortable life.”
At the moment, then, when Biss surmises that the grotesqueness of La Salina’s expatriates adheres to same logic that brings Mexican labor across the border—“a life … promised but not delivered”—it comes as an argument whose development has been made transparent in each step, intellectual and personal. Biss offers not only a compelling examination, but also a reflective process enacted—and, consequently, shared—for achieving a more incisive critique of that in which we all share culpability: capitalist economy.
To make criticism from the fires of self-analysis is, of course, a project shared by both Biss and Tolentino. But when writing, as Tolentino does, from the Millennial perspective and on a subject as grandiose and pernicious as capitalism, it is a task crisscrossed with rhetorical trip-wires. In this light, Tolentino’s greatest achievement in Trick Mirror may be her demonstration of the difficulties of self-implication. No doubt Tolentino earns her collection’s subtitle, Reflections on Self-Delusion, but as often as those reflections lend her critical utility, they appear as mere genre requirements. The latter instances do not lead only to analytical lapses—in what is an otherwise captivating and acute collection—but also, and more troublingly, to questions of sincerity. When rote, Tolentino’s mea culpa reads as something she has known all along—and, as a critic whose qualifications rest on complicity, appears hesitant to change. Why move beyond reflection when reflection has made your reputation?
So Trick Mirror asks: where is the line between genuine and performative introspection? What sort of ethical function does reflection offer if, to any degree, reflection is commanded by conventions? Is it more valuable, as a critic, to be complicit in capitalism than to think past its parameters? And the most important question: is reflection enough?
Aaron Colton is a lecturer in writing studies and the assistant director of the TWP Writing Studio at Duke University. His interests include sincerity, authenticity, and irony in 20th- and 21st-century US culture, literary representations of writer’s block, and composition pedagogy. His writing has appeared previously in Arizona Quarterly, College Literature, and Studies in American Fiction, as well as in The Outline and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @aaron_colton.